19th century troll?

In online discussions, “trolling” is the practice of intentionally advocating a position that is calculated to provoke an impassioned reply from others. Someone who does this habitually is a troll. If I’m not mistaken, trolling predates the internet by quite a long time. Take this anonymous (Well, okay, pseudonymous — it’s signed “Independent”) letter to the editor of the New York Times of August 14, 1860. Here’s an excerpt:

For myself, I fear not to proclaim my views openly and fearlessly. And the sooner the conservative people of the South, in one united body, declare frankly, but without bravado, their full convictions of their rights and their unalterable determination to stand by them, the better for all. And what are these rights that seem to be in peril, but the power to hold our slaves openly and boldly, wherever our common Constitution is acknowledged to be of binding force?

Now, I ask you, as a man of candor, how dare the State of New York refuse her protection to the slave-master who should choose to take his slaves within her limits? There is but one answer to this question, and that is that the Constitution of New York is, with a few honorable exceptions (like O’CONOR), regarded by her citizens as “Higher Law” than the Constitution of the United States.

The letter writer identifies himself as a Virginian, and argues that the constitution protects slavery in the states as well as the territories. He refers to slavery as “heaven-born”, and concludes by saying that “Slavery is the only security against infidelity in religion and anarchy in government, and the safeguard of morality and virtue”. Southern sympathizers trying to persuade fence-sitting Northerners typically avoid mentioning slavery outright, preferring to refer obliquely to “property”. And while there was a growing movement in the South to identify slavery not merely as something to be tolerated, but a positive good, you expect to see such opinions in the Charleston Mercury, not the New York Times. This letter is so over the top that I think it has to be a troll, intended to provoke a Northern response — perhaps to rouse undecideds to vote for Lincoln.

The letter also predicts that the “union ticket of these three parties” — referring presumably to one of the “fusion tickets” that gave a slate of electors pledged to vote anyone but Lincoln — would sweep the North. This result would deny any candidate an electoral vote majority and send the election to the House, where the writer predicts that the winner would be Breckinridge, Douglas, or Lane (Breckinridge’s vice-presidential candidate). I’m guessing that the author is raising this possibility in order to dissuade voters from supporting a fusion ticket, as he says that in this case there would soon be a slave code enacted for the territories and even the Northern states1.

Charles O'Conor Charles O’Conor

So who’s this “honorable exception” O’Conor? Charles O’Conor, who was counsel for the state of Virginia in the Lemmon case. A Virginia family, the Lemmons, were traveling through New York in 1852, taking along eight slaves. Louis Napoleon, a free black, brought suit, claiming that under New York law slavery was illegal, and that the slaves were therefore free. The suit was successful in New York superior court, and the slaves were freed. In 1860 Virginia, emboldened by the Dred Scott decision the previous year, appealed this ruling. Charles O’Conor, a New York lawyer, was Virginia’s counsel in the case 2.

O’Conor argued that slavery could not be outlawed by a single state. His whole brief was published on August 1, 1860 in the New York Times; it’s long, but has some interesting claims. The superior court judge cited English law in his decision, holding that slavery can only exist where there is positive law supporting it. O’Conor holds that English law is irrelevant, because the people it said could not be enslaved were white. Africans, he argues, have a special status that makes slavery their natural condition.

In fact there is no violation of the principles of enlightened justice nor any departure from the dictates of pure benevolence in holding negroes in a state of Slavery.

1. Men, whether black or white, cannot exist with ordinary comfort and in reasonable safety otherwise than in the social state.

2. Negroes, alone and unaided by the guardianship of another race, cannot sustain a civilized social state.

a. This proposition does not require for its support an assertion or denial of the unity of the human race, the application of Noah’s malediction, (9 Geo. R. 582,) or the possibility that time has changed and may again change the Ethiopian’s physical and moral nature.

b. It is only necessary to view the negro as he is, and to credit the palpable and undeniable truth, that the latter phenomenon cannot happen within thousands of years. For all the ends of jurisprudence this is a perpetuity.

c. The negro never has sustained a civilized social organization, and that he never can is sufficiently manifest from history. It is proven by the rapid, though gradual retrogression of Hayti toward the most profoundest depths of destitution, ignorance and barbarism.

d. That, alone and unaided, he never can sustain a civilized social organization is proven to all reasonable minds by the fact that one single member of his race has never attained proficiency in any art or science requiring the employment of high intellectual capacity. A mediocrity below the standard of qualification for the important duties of government, for guiding the affairs of society, or for progress in the abstract sciences, may be common in individuals of other races; but it is universal amongst negroes. Not one single negro has ever risen above it.

It’s amazing to see just how wrong someone can be. O’Conor was demonstrably wrong in point 2.d. to begin with. St. Augustine of Hippo was a Berber, and pretty certainly would have been viewed as “black” by O’Conor, for instance — though he wouldn’t have known this from existing iconography. And I guess we can excuse O’Conor for not knowing about the great African empires, even though several were extant at the time of his writing, since Europeans were mostly not aware of them. But he definitely has to have known of Frederick Douglass, as an example of a prominent black man in his own time.

Frederick Douglass Frederick Douglass, ca. 1850-1860

Furthermore, he was totally wrong in retrospect. It didn’t take “thousands of years” to change the “Ethiopian’s physical and moral stature,” even in the US. The presidential election of 2008 would have come as quite a surprise to O’Conor.

The New York Court of Appeals ruled to reaffirm the freedom of the former Lemmon slaves, 5-3. I have this feeling O’Conor was not too popular among moderates in New York in 1860, and certainly not the name you would mention to try to make your case in the North. Still, O’Conor’s argument was intended to persuade in a Northern court, and his position is that slavery is a positive good. So maybe I’ve undermined my own argument here. Is the letter-writer “Independent” serious, or a troll?


1 Potter has a good discussion of the election of 1860, and the “fusion” tickets, in The Impending Crisis.

2New York Bar Association Library (http://www.abcny.org/Library/FeaturedExhibitions3.htm)

This entry was posted in Charles O'Conor, Frederick Douglass, New York, Slavery, Virginia. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to 19th century troll?

  1. Pingback: 8/15 The Slave Trade | Seven Score and Ten

  2. Zeugma says:

    Is the use of “trolling” and “troll” , where the two meanings are conflated, an example of zeugma? Just wondering.

  3. Pingback: What it’s all about | Seven Score and Ten

  4. Pingback: January 12, 1861: “To advocate Hell upon Earth.” | Seven Score and Ten

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